If there was one place, just one, to sit and reflect on the past 35 years, I guess I’d have to choose a seat in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Central Auditorium. Somewhere on the right side, maybe about the fifth row. That was generally close enough to get a look at the stage, but far enough back to be enveloped by the crowd and feel the excitement as the room began to fill. It was positioned so I could dash to the stage for an interview afterward or make a quick exit to the hallway if time was short and a deadline was near.
ORNL’s old-style auditorium, kind of musty and sloped from front to back, was where I first embraced the joy of my job.
Important events took place there — everything from new science to presidential visits — and it was my job to explain what happened and why it was important.
That was challenging. It was a joy.
Mind you, trips to the auditorium weren’t always joyful. I wrote a column many years ago under the headline, “Trapped! Caught in a Valley of Instability Along a Neutron Drip Line.” I confessed my discomfort when a dedication ceremony for a lab research facility turned into a highly technical program. From where I was seated, there was no way to leave without creating a disruption. So I endured the mind-numbing proceedings until there was a break.
In 1996, ORNL’s Central Auditorium was renamed to honor Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, who once served as the lab’s research director. It’s been years since I’ve actually taken a seat there. Events these days are typically held at other, more modern facilities.
Of course, the joys of my job were never confined to an auditorium.
The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge operations were a gold mine of news stories, from science to national security, and breaking a story always brought joy to a newsman’s heart.
I’m sure there were folks in the federal establishment who thought I only found joy in their misery.
While I’m positive some of my reporting caused pain inside DOE and its contractors, reporting on environmental messes or massive cost overruns was no more satisfying than describing the capabilities of the world’s fastest computer or taking a construction tour of Y-12’s new storehouse for bomb-grade uranium.
The real fun was in the process. Interviewing different people under varying circumstances. Piecing together information from multiple sources until a story took shape. Challenging the system — the federal government — to do what’s right.
To a large extent, news was news.
I will say this, however: Some of my favorite times in Oak Ridge required protective clothing.
KNS photo archives/Frank Munger circa 1984